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Is an Employer Responsible for an Auto Accident Caused by a Commuting Employee?


If you are seriously injured in an auto accident, you may be able to seek compensation against not only the negligent driver, but also their employer. Iowa courts generally permit such recovery under the legal principle of “respondeat superior,” which translates from Latin to mean “let the principal answer.” Basically, if the driver is acting in the “scope of his employment” at the time of the accident, then the employer (as the principal) is liable to the injured party.

Iowa Police Department Not Liable for Late Officer Hitting Pedestrian

But there are some important exceptions to the respondeat superior rule. For example, you generally cannot sue an employer if the employee injured you while commuting to and from work. The reason for this is that the “scope of employment” is normally restricted to those times when the employer has the “right to control” the employee’s actions. Since an employer usually does not dictate how an employee gets to or from the workplace, commuting time is normally outside the scope of employment.

Recently, the Iowa Court of Appeals addressed whether this commuting exception applied to an employee who got into an accident after his work shift was scheduled to begin. The accident occurred at 11:03 p.m. on Halloween night of 2015. The plaintiff was a pedestrian crossing the street. She was struck and seriously injured by a pickup truck that had just made a left turn.

The driver of the truck was a police officer for the City of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa. He was traveling to the police station to work his patrol shift, which was supposed to begin at 11 p.m., three minutes before the accident. Following the accident, the police department placed the officer on paid administrative leave for several days, which included the day of the accident.

The plaintiff subsequently sued both the officer and the city, the latter under the theory of respondeat superior. She maintained the city was “responsible for the negligent acts of its employees while on duty” for the police department. In response, the city argued the officer had not begun his shift when the accident occurred, and he was therefore not on-duty–and more importantly, not acting within the scope of his employment when he struck the plaintiff.

Although the trial court held this was a factual dispute for a jury to decide, the Court of Appeals disagreed and granted summary judgment to the city. Noting that the officer had not “clocked in” prior to the accident, the Court of Appeals said the commuting exception to respondeat superior applied here. Even the fact the officer “received pay for his administrative leave after the fact does not change the nature of his acts while commuting to work.”

Need Advice from a Southeast Iowa Auto Accident Attorney?

Determining who is responsible for your auto accident is not always as simple as you might think. From a legal standpoint there may be multiple parties who you can recover damages against. An experienced Iowa auto accident attorney can review the facts of your specific case and advise you on the appropriate course of action. Call the Noyes Law Office, P.C., today if you have been in an accident and need to speak with a personal injury lawyer today.


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